Starve your voice mail, feed your e-mail

I’ve touched on this topic briefly before, but here’s a lengthier discussion on why, in general, I find e-mail to be vastly preferable to voice mail for communication in the business world.

Here’s my stance: voice mail works reasonably well on a small scale in the home (i.e., personal voice mail implemented usually with answering machines), but it tends to break down completely in a large-scale business environment.

Until I took active steps to deal with it about a dozen years ago, I was getting between 50 and 100 voice mail messages a day. The “message waiting” light on my phone had become a night light for my office. At an average of a minute or two each to listen and respond, these messages were taking me hours a day to work through. I realized that our greater project team of several hundred people was able to put voice mail messages into my queue a lot faster than I could ever pull them out. Voice mail just wasn’t a good use of my personal bandwidth. So I took the radical step of putting an outgoing message on my voice mailbox, telling people that if they had a choice, please send me e-mail rather than voice mail, and I’d be able to get back to them a lot more quickly.

E-mail has flaws, of course, but sports many advantages over voice mail: most notably, it can be quickly skimmed, categorized, saved, searched, archived. What’s more, it puts you and others on the line: you can be held to what you argued, what you promised. At most, it can be misinterpreted, but it can’t easily be denied. And that’s healthy, for you, for your co-workers, and for your organization. Accountability drives responsibility.

When I communicate something in e-mail, I’m forced to examine how I’m expressing it, whether I’ve left important parts out, and whether I’ve perhaps included needless information that doesn’t add to the message. On the other hand, when I listen to my own messages in voice mail, I’m often surprised and dismayed to hear what I can now clearly see are blatant omissions or ambiguous phrasing. Once those words are out of my mouth when I’m sending a voice mail, I can’t really call them back, short of starting the response over again entirely. And given the need to listen to one’s own new incoming messages, who has time for that?

Unlike voice mail, responses to e-mail can selectively quote portions of text, so that issues can be addressed clearly, point for counterpoint. As a result, the intellectual rigor of an e-mail discussion can be substantially higher than an ongoing stream of back-and-forth voice mail messages, where people eventually forget who said what when, and the whole mess disintegrates into fuzzy impressions.

Voice mail is maddeningly sequential, provides no audit trail, no accountability, no skimmability. It can’t be kept for long, and even if you do keep it, you can’t get to a particular message quickly when you need to. Within a particular message, you can’t tell where the important information content is, since most people don’t organize their spoken messages very well. At best, you can speed a message up, or skip portions, at your peril.

Cell phones are a boon to business in general and an apparent perfect match for voice mail. So, you listen to your messages in your car while commuting, until you discover the frustration of not being able to write anything down (an appointment, a phone number) while you’re driving. So you save the message, in the vain hope that you’ll return to it later to capture the information onto paper. The more messages you save, of course, the more time-consuming it is to wade through all the old junk, since you have to do it sequentially. Eventually, your voice mailbox fills up (most companies have limits) with all this detritus, and no one is able to leave you messages at all.

Key ways in which people misuse voice mail:

  • Rambling on. Most people repeat themselves a lot in oral communication; few of us are natural extemporaneous orators
  • Coming to the point at the very end (beating around the bush)
  • Covering multiple topics and expecting you to remember and reply to each one
  • Creating team “broadcast messages” that go to dozens or even hundreds of people, with the honorable intent of “keeping everyone informed.” People in at least one company I worked for fell in love with this concept. I would get ten to twenty broadcast messages per day, most of which were going out to more than ten people at a time. In essence, it was voice mail spam. I guess I would have felt well-informed, if only I could have waded through all the messages.

How you can model a more effective use of voice mail:

  • Use it mostly when you have little alternative — when you’re on the road, for example.
  • Leave short, succinct messages, covering a single topic per message.
  • Don’t leave “content-free” messages, such as “Sally, could you give me a call when you get a chance? Thanks.” Let people know what you’re actually calling about and what you need to know.
  • If you must leave a longer message, jot down an outline in advance so that you can make it as to-the-point as possible
  • Try to influence a change in your overall corporate culture with respect to broadcast announcements, so that people start to issue and expect them in e-mail, not voice mail
  • Develop good writing skills, in yourself and in your staff. “Put yourself on the line” with your commitments, in writing — everyone will benefit
  • Don’t ever neglect face-to-face communication in favor of either e-mail or voice mail.

Voice mail is quite literally a technology for the last century, but by and large, we still haven’t learned to use it effectively.  In fact, we go overboard on it, often out of sheer laziness. Let’s rethink. Everyone needs to get comfortable with written skills, if you want to be competitive and maximize your personal communications bandwidth. Executives who can’t or won’t use e-mail effectively are going to find themselves on the outskirts of corporate society, uninformed, uninvolved.

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